The squat—how many times have you heard that it’s the secret to a great butt and faster fat loss? There’s certainly some truth to it. Squats work your butt and the large muscles of your legs, and working those muscles takes energy that helps you lose fat.
But say you have painful knees or hips? Is your butt always going to look fat in those jeans? Fortunately, there are other ways to work our glutes and those big leg muscles that will help us burn a few more calories. Let’s start with the squat and work our way through a few modifications so that there’s something for all fitness levels.
The Unloaded Squat
Beginning: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
Middle: Push your butt back and toward the floor as though you’re moving to sit on a chair. Your arms are in front of you for balance, but your elbows should sit behind or no greater than even with your knees. If you’re leaning further forward than that, you’re losing form.
End: Exhale as you return to standing by pushing off with your legs, contracting your glutes, and snapping your hips forward. (For an extra challenge, you can push off enough that you jump at the end of each rep OR you can add weight by holding a sandbag or weighted plate against your chest, just don’t jump with the weight until you’re confident you can keep good form and hang on to the weight throughout the movement.)
Points to consider: You may grip the floor with your toes to help with balance. Keep your shoulders relaxed and tucked away from your ears and toward your butt. If you’re able to go lower than 90 degrees with your knees, your pelvis will curl toward the back of your heels and your knees will end up tucked into or very near your arm pits.
If you can’t do a full squat because of knee, hip, or lower back pain, the first modification to try is moving to the shoulder bridge. A lot of the weight load is removed from the knee and hip because you’re on your back instead of standing, and your back starts supported by the floor.
Beginning: Begin by lying on your back with your knees as close to your butt as is comfortably possible.
Middle: Push off of mid-foot and drive your hips upward until your weight is balanced between your shoulders and feet. Imagine that you are pushing your knees to opposite corners of the room to allow your hips to open.
End: Return to the starting position with control.
Points to consider: When you are lifted, your weight always stays on your feet and shoulders while your spine is in a straight line. Your weight should never be resting on your neck.
After knee surgery, I couldn’t do a squat or the shoulder bridge. Instead, I broke the basics of the exercise down even further. Technically I started with nothing more than leg lifts and then weighted leg lifts. But after a few weeks, I moved on to the prone scorpion. This exercise is a great way to get to your glutes while controlling how much weight your hip or knee has to lift. As a bonus, the prone scorpion also helps with mobility for your back, hips, and shoulders.
Beginning: Begin by lying face down with your arms extended at 90 degrees to your body, palms down.
Middle: Lift your left leg and reach across your body from behind while your right palm rotates upward as though you’re going to set your heel in it. Try to set your foot flat on the floor just as close to your hand as you can get (no sliding your hand toward it!). To the extent that your knee allows, push into the floor with your left foot to open your hips.
End: Return to start. Repeat with the right leg to complete one repetition.
Points to consider: Let your leg lead by actively lifting it so that you’re using it and your core muscles to turn your body sideways instead of just letting it roll over until your foot is on the floor…lifting is what fires the glutes and adds shape to your behind. If your shoulders are too restricted to allow the movement, just leave your arms at your sides while doing the rest of the exercise. Matthew’s foot isn’t flat on the floor in the picture, but if you can get yours there and then push without pain, your leg muscles will benefit even more from the exercise.
You may find that after working one exercise for a while, you’ve built up enough strength and mobility to move to a more weighted version. If you can, that’s great! If you can’t, doing what you can do is better than doing nothing at all.
We’ve all become used to the idea that exercise has to be an event…the right clothes, the right shoes or no shoes, the right food before and after, etc. Think about most of the natural wonders of the world; structures of beauty that take your breath away in awe of their magnificence. They weren’t created instantly. Instead, very small actions added up over time to create something sculpted and beautiful—no gear or gym required. 😉
Until next time, may the choices you make and the actions you take today, create a healthier ‘you’ tomorrow!
(Special thanks to Matthew Funk for posing for the majority of the pictures and to Ryan Murdock for the use of his photo of a full squat.)